From Bethlehem to Austin
A Palestinian-American Comes Home to Texas
It was the open space in Austin that initially overwhelmed me. I couldn't adjust to it. The ease with which I could get in a car and drive from my new South Austin home to Little City Cafe on Congress Avenue left me bewildered and confused. Where were the military checkpoints? Where were the armed soldiers asking for my identification papers? Where were the barricades that would force me to turn back?
The month was December 2000. I had just returned to the United States, after an absence of 11 years during which I lived in a refugee camp in Bethlehem, the town where Christ was born. I was not accustomed to freedom of movement, nor to going more than a few miles without encountering military checkpoints. From 1995 to 2000, I was confined to the tiny, 49-square-mile area of Bethlehem under Palestinian control, because the Israeli military authorities would not grant me any type of legal residency status -- in the country where I was born -- that would enable me to travel distances as short as the distance between South Austin and downtown. Being an American citizen made no difference. I still lacked the proper documents that would enable me to leave Bethlehem.
Getting comfortable with my sudden freedom in Austin was going to take time. I had to adjust to no longer feeling like an animal inside a cage. Most days, I felt utterly dazed. I would spend hours sitting on a stone bench at UT, staring at the squirrels and the birds as they hunted morsels of food. The lushness of the bushes and the trees left me intoxicated. The expansive green lawns brought tears to my eyes.
My mind would drift to Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, and to 3-year-old Marianna, my delightful ex-neighbor. Marianna has never seen a green patch of grass in her life and has never seen a squirrel. She lives confined to Bethlehem, condemned to remain a prisoner behind the checkpoints and the military barricades. The distance between Marianna's house and Jerusalem is no further than the distance from my South Austin home and downtown. Yet Marianna has never been to Jerusalem and is unlikely to go there anytime in the near future, because no Palestinian can venture into the Holy City without a special Israeli-issued permit, and those permits are almost impossible to come by.
Imagine needing a military permit to drink coffee at Little City. Or another permit to reach your office downtown. Or another permit to visit your doctor in North Austin. This is precisely how ordinary Palestinian children and their parents live in the Palestinian Territories. And until I left, this is how I lived too. A human being, caged like an animal in a zoo.
But adjusting to my sudden freedom paled in comparison to overcoming my fears and my nightmares. When I left Bethlehem, the second Palestinian uprising against Israel's military occupation was already two months under way. The sound of bomb explosions, gunfire and Apache helicopters overhead lingered in my mind. Hard as I tried, I couldn't shake the sounds away. They were always there, ringing inside my head.
Visions and Nightmares
Now, in Austin, there were nightmares. I would dream either of friends being shot dead, or see pools of blood spilling from bullet-riddled bodies, or that I myself was the target of gunfire. I would wake up in a sweat, terrified of going back to sleep. During the day, the sound of police or ambulance sirens made me jumpy. Helicopters flying overhead made me uneasy. I had to constantly remind myself that these were most often civilian and not military helicopters. I had to remind myself that the ambulances were not rushing to evacuate wounded demonstrators.
In retrospect, it seems that I spent the entire month of December in a comatose state. Coffee and cigarettes were my constant companions, and I had little interest in doing anything but staring blankly into open space. I didn't realize that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress. A warlike situation takes its toll. By the time I left the Palestinian Territories, I had visited too many gutted houses, and been to too many funerals of ordinary adults and teenage children whose lives were brought to an abrupt end by gunfire. The pain you feel when you see so much human life wasted is immense, particularly when you realize that you are impotent -- because you can't make it stop.
As the months rolled by, my nightmares began to subside and I began enjoying being a free American again. Instead of being afraid of armed soldiers who might shoot me, I was in a place where there was law and order, and a 911 police number that I could call if I were in danger. But I remained sad and depressed. Surfing the Internet for news from the Palestinian Territories brought daily updates of more death and destruction. Yet when broadcast on American television, this reality was somehow transformed -- the Palestinians were always portrayed in negative terms, as the aggressors or worse: as "terrorists."
Thinking a shopping spree would lift my spirits, a friend took me to Barton Creek Mall one afternoon. The place was packed with shoppers and the playful shrieks of children filled the air. Mothers pushed strollers and grandparents sat on benches, catching their breath. I thought of little Marianna again, and wondered what she would do if she were ever to set foot in a mall. I imagined her racing around, having the time of her life.
The Mall of America
I looked around me, and I wondered if anyone at the mall realized, or even knew, that the Apache helicopters being used by the Israeli military to shell innocent Palestinian civilians are actually made in this country! As a writer in Palestine, I had regularly visited bombed-out houses in search of stories. The home of a young nurse sticks out in my mind. Situated only a few miles away from the manger in Bethlehem where Christ is said to have been born, her house came under attack by Israeli tanks and was completely burned. I held the remains of some of the tank shells in my two bare hands and read the inscription: "Made in Mesa, Arizona."
I wanted to stand on a railing and scream this information to everyone walking through the mall. The tear gas civilians inhale in the Palestinian Territories is made in Pennsylvania, and the helicopters and the F-16 fighter planes are also made in the USA. Yet here in this consumer society, no one appears to care that their tax money funds armies that bring death and destruction to civilians, civilians who are no different from civilians in this country.
And I worry about the indifference in this country. I worry because someday, young American men will find themselves fighting another Vietnam war -- this time possibly in the Middle East -- without a notion of what it is they are doing there. And we will have a repetition of history: Mothers will lose sons and wives will lose husbands in an unnecessary war. I have been repeating this foreboding in all the talks I have been giving in the past nine months, and reiterated it in a late-April public-radio interview. No one took me seriously. And the public's indifference toward U.S. foreign policy frightened me. I couldn't understand why young Americans, with their whole futures ahead of them, should go to die in a war they will not understand.
Then came the latest Black September: September 11, 2001 is etched forever in our minds. For a group of people to plan such a calculated, cold-blooded attack on innocent air travelers and office workers is beyond conception. The immense loss of life and human suffering will haunt us for many years. The scenes of wives and sisters and fathers and husbands looking for missing loved ones has left a lasting mark on each and every one of us. How could anyone be so brutal and so inhuman as to target so many innocent people in one day? I don't think any of us in this country will ever be the same again. Ever.
All Changed, Changed Utterly
Today, a few weeks after the gruesome attack on New York and Washington, the open space in Austin frightens me. Suddenly I feel defensive about being an Arab American. Yet I don't understand why I ought to be defensive. Suddenly we are transformed from ordinary law-abiding citizens who pay taxes and spend our hard-earned money as consumers, to a marked people who fear reprisal, racial profiling, hate crimes. The possibility that our civil liberties can be jeopardized because of our religious beliefs or ethnic background is so distressing.
For days now, I have been feeling as if I were back in the Palestinian Territories -- unsafe. And each day, I have to remind myself that I am an American, that I have a right to be here, that I have done nothing wrong and have no cause to hide my ethnic identity, my home country. Yet now I jump when I hear a car pull up in my street. I avoid speaking to friends in Arabic in public places. I search the eyes of customers at the store to see if they recognize that I am Arab.
I find it hard to believe that I am feeling these things here, in the United States of America! And I resent having to feel defensive, when I have nothing to be defensive about.
I tell myself this is not the Palestinian Territories. I am not under occupation, and this is the safest country where I can live. Yet the other night I was afraid to stop at a convenience store in Pflugerville for cigarettes. I am no longer comfortable riding a bus alone or being in a public place alone. My friends tell me I am paranoid. But the press reports attacks against Muslims and Arab Americans throughout the country, and I know that my paranoia is not completely unjustified. Every Arab American I talk to in Austin is experiencing the same sense of uneasiness and discomfort. Yet most of us are citizens of this country.
The phone rings day and night. American friends call to say they are worried for us. They want us to be careful. They offer us their homes as refuge should anything go wrong. Their calls soothe me and make me realize I am not alone, and that there are so many people here who don't hold Arab Americans responsible for what we did not do.
I search the faces of college students who may someday soon be called to war. I wish we could rewind time; I dwell on the thought. It is September 11, 2001, and it is another day as usual in New York and Washington. The day ends and there is no attack. We are not going to war. But I start to cry, and I know that Black September did happen. The little girl living inside me wants to believe in Santa Claus and in goodness and love, peace and harmony. I imagine all world leaders, of all nations of the world, coming together and deciding to destroy all weapons of mass destruction, all the guns and the bombs and the bullets that exist in this world, and to bring to an end all regional conflicts and military actions and occupations.
War and Rumors of War
I tell myself that this planet is big enough for all of us. Yet I know this is a make-believe world. What lies ahead is terribly frightening. While those who planned this atrocious and cold-blooded attack must be brought to justice, I worry about the additional loss of innocent human life. I worry that any retaliation could escalate and lead to World War III. We live in an age of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons: "weapons of mass destruction." Should such a war begin, I believe none of us will survive.
During each decade of my life, I have lived through a war. I was 8 years old during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War; 11 in 1970, during the Civil War in Jordan; 30 in 1989, when I moved to the Palestinian Territories during the first Palestinian uprising; and 40 last fall, the beginning of the second Palestinian uprising. I don't believe anyone ever escapes victorious from war. War is defeat and devastation: It forces ordinary people to lose their loved ones, their property, and their jobs, and to become refugees. It never makes this world a better place. n
Muna Hamzeh is a Palestinian-American journalist who has reported on Palestinian affairs for numerous publications since 1985. She recently moved to Austin from Dhiesheh, Bethlehem. She is the author of Ordinary Days in Dheisheh, a collection of diary entries written during the current Palestinian intifada[uprising]. Her new book, Refugees in Our Own Land: Chronicles from a Palestinian Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, was published in England in August, 2001 (Pluto Press), and is now available in Austin bookstores. She is a contributing writer for the recently published book, The New Intifada.